Essays - ‘Tennyson’s Charm’
From The Saint Pauls Magazine - March 1872 - Vol. X, pp. 282-303.
(Reprinted as ‘Tennyson, Heine, and De Musset’ in Master-Spirits (London: Henry S. King and Company, 1873).)
“THE proof of a poet,” writes the bard of American democracy, “must be sternly delayed until his country absorbs him as affectionately, as he, in the first instance, has absorbed it.” * The last final consecration, after all, is the approval of the people, or of that section of the people to which the poet specially appeals; and not until that consecration is given, can a poet justly be deemed prosperous, or adequate, or puissant as a vital force. Sometimes, as in the cases of Burns and Byron, and the subject of the present article, the poet, “absorbed” instantaneously, lives to see the seeds of his own intelligence springing up around him in a hundred startling and wonderful forms; and to feel that, whether or not the honour accorded to him be adequate to the influence he is exerting, he has at least moved the heart and illuminated the mind of his generation. At other times, as in the cases of Shelley, Whitman, and Browning, the absorption, although it is no less complete, takes place in so circuitous a fashion, by means of so many intellectual ducts and go-betweens, and is, moreover, often delayed so late, that the public may well be ignorant of the debt it owes to the poets in question; and the poets, in their turn, may well doubt the extent and value of their own influence. Almost from the commencement, Alfred Tennyson has been recognised as a leading English poet; and his name has been ripening, as all good things ripen, from day to day. On the other hand, the Laureate’s only formidable English rival, the thinker who is now recognised as the mighty Lancelot to our poetic Arthur,—I mean, of course, Robert Browning,—was publishing poetry for thirty years, without half the fame, or one quarter the success, enjoyed in turn by each new ephemeron of the season; and when, a few years ago, he published his collected works, a new generation plunged with wonder into a poetic gold-mine, of which the preceding generation had scarcely told them one syllable. Shelley is to this day a secret rather than a mighty force. To praise Whitman to the British critic is like preaching a new religion to Bishop Colenso’s savage. Yet he would be rash, indeed, who said that Shelley and Browning have wasted their time and missed the final consecration, or
* I am quite aware that I am only interpreting this passage in its smaller and more simple sense. Whitman means that every true poet assimilates the forces around him and fabricates them into form, and that the poet’s work, in its turn, is “absorbed” back into the original forces, plus the colouring force of the poet’s imagination.
283 that Whitman should be silent because he has to be explained like a novel religious system. It is curious, doubtless, to see the public heaping all their gratitude in one vast shower of roses and yellow gold at one man’s feet, while good men and true, to whom so much is owing, stand aside comparatively unrecognised and unappreciated. Still, even fame and recognition do not necessarily imply prosperity personally. Heine dies for years in his Parisian garret, while all Germany recognises him as her greatest poet since Goethe. After all, there are compensations; and he who is not content to give his best to the world, without too eager a clamour for recompense, has possibly no gift to offer which posterity will consider worth the having.
And, meanwhile, we in England here may well rejoice that the British public is right for once, and that, instead of consecrating some later Blackmore or Shadwell, instead of using the laurel to bind over flattery or to glorify mediocrity, it has at last,—nay, for the second time, for did not Wordsworth immediately precede?—done eager honour to a great English poet—one whose works are above all impeachment from any platform, and whose genius is as certain of immortality in England, as that of Heine in Germany, or that of Alfred de Musset in France. True, a certain number of people still persist in confounding clearness of flow with shallowness of depth, and in averring that Tennyson is not sufficiently “tremendous.” True, a certain number of dyspeptic and nervously deranged gentlemen, who think poetry ought to be a sort of galvanic battery, to be taken medically at regular intervals, and divers other young persons, with large animal faculties, who regard verse as a sort of soothing hair-brushing by machinery, are almost agreed that the Tennysonian epic is not half wicked enough, and is moreover abominably slow. True, some of the critics who have taken lately to Browning, as other people take to dram-drinking, begin to fancy that the Tennysonian tipple does not taste half strong enough in the mouth. True, in one word, that certain members of this generation, having nourished themselves on the Laureate’s wine almost to intoxication, now begin to long for something sharper,—no matter how vile a mixture,— something more gingery, and infinitely less mellow. Never was testimony more convincing of the fine nature of the liquor they are rejecting; for its delicious flavour has tempted them over and over again to drink far too much at a sitting, and so to produce a really natural nausea. What on earth were all the poets given us for, if we are to confine ourselves, half in ignorance, half in perversity, to one alone, and to one the nearest to our elbow? The rich wines of the Muses were meant to correct each other; to please by contrast, to delight by infinite variety. None but a ninny or a boor goes on guzzling one drink until, in sheer disgust, he walks off with a curse at the vintage. The more the British public gets to know of literature in general, the higher will be its delight in Tennyson; 284 and although there may be some acceptance now of the foolish judgment devised, to their own discredit, by literary tipplers, I feel sure that readers in general will do their favourite the grand justice of tempering his with other poetry. Close “Locksley Hall,” or “Maud,” and open Heine’s “Ratcliffe,” or Browning’s “Epistle of Karsheesh;” then go back to Tennyson, in due course, and read the stately idyl of “Guinevere.” Gallop to Ghent with the three who took the good news, or dance in the wild moonshine with the ghosts of the hanged in Heine’s ballad, or step into the dark chamber where De Musset’s Rolla lies with his little mistress in his arms; and then, return to the windy downs and the chalk cliffs by the sea, as you find them in the Laureate’s English song. The more charming you find any literature, and the more exquisite the gratification you get out of it, the more speedily should you relieve it with the beauties of other books: that is to say, if you would have it keep its charm. I know no poetry—not even Shakespeare’s—which will stand the test of serving for all occasions. Each singer has his own style of pleasing us. As the public knowledge of good poetry widens (never surely was public ignorance greater than now as to all literature more than fifty years old), we shall be more and more able to ascertain how great an art it must be, how subtle and supreme a genius, which manages to charm any generation as Alfred Tennyson is charming ours.
What is this charm to which wise and foolish yield alike, which warms the hearts of bishops and portly deans, which persuades the smug man of science into approval, which delights youths and maidens, which excites the envy of poets and the despair of scholars? What is the quality of this nectarine drink, that it quickens pulses in those who deem Shelley hysterical and Wordsworth wearisome in the extreme? Why have critics loved Tennyson from the first, and why is the entire British public learning to love him too? Questions readily put, but exceedingly difficult to answer. Much, perhaps, is due to the fact that Tennyson came just in time to reap the harvest sown by those poets of whom he is, in a sense, the direct product,—Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats,—poets whose literary charms society was slow to feel till it flowered forth into the perfect speech of the present Laureate. A great deal, doubtless, is due to the thoroughly unimpeachable and middle-class tone of the scenery, the sentiments, and (for the most part) of the subjects. A little, also, has been due to the limpid delicacy of the style, which, though ornate in a certain sense, owes nothing to meretricious ornament and little to fanciful affectation. However the phenomenon may be explained, the facts are undeniable: that, just in the nick of time, just when the poets had been concentrating all their energies into “boring” the public, up started this poetical prodigy, bent on pleasing by the simplest means; with all Landor’s culture and none of 285 his woodenheadness, with all Wordsworth’s philosophy and none of his prosiness; with all Keats’s colour and none of his hectic excitement, with much of Shelley’s subtlety and not a grain of his hysteria; a poet after the Muses’ own heart, determined to utter nothing base, and resolved to win victory, if win he must, not by Wordsworthian lecturing or Landorian hectoring, neither by fainting-fits after Keats nor screaming-matches after Shelley, but by sheer unadulterated charm of style and manner,—the style of a moss-rose and the manner of a bird on the bough.
On all literary points, and particularly on all points affecting poetry, the British public is particularly stubborn. No amount of critical remonstrances, for example, has ever been able to convince it that poetry is a serious business, absorbing all the forces of life, and apt, at times, to be terrible and startling as well as bewitching and pleasing. Poetry, to please it, must be, above all things, “beautiful,”—a love-plant twining round the abode of Virtue and festooning with its pleasant flowers the garden of the domestic Idea. Anything shocking, anything broad and coarse, anything dull and tedious, is by it forbidden. It has never really liked Wordsworth. It believes to this day that Shelley was a wicked person, and it derives no real satisfaction from his poems generally, notwithstanding its admiration for the “Ode to a Skylark,” “The Cloud,” and a few other lyrical pieces. It still likes the “Rape of the Lock” and other poetry of the classical English period. Nothing, to this hour, has shaken its faith in Byron, in spite of all his follies and vices, because, in the first place, he was a lord, and because, in the second place, his sort of writing, with its rapid free-hand drawing, really pleased. From this and other circumstances, it may readily be gathered that the public is difficult enough to satisfy, and regards the noble art of poetry as a sort of elegant accomplishment and gentlemanly adornment seldom to be indulged in by vulgar natures. This, cries the young man, is disgusting; and the young man, burning with enthusiasm, curses the public with all his heart. But suppose that Mrs. Grundy is right, to a great extent, after all? Is it so great a sin, then, to “love a lord,” and to delight in gentlemanly manners? The love for a lord comes from a very honest and natural sentiment, to which the delight in good manners is closely akin. Be that as it may, much of the general approval of Tennyson can be traced to the fact that he shocks none of the finer sensibilities, and writes, no matter what be his theme, like an English gentleman.
Is this sarcasm? asks the suspicious reader. By no means. I am simply repeating, word for word, the charge of the small critic against Tennyson,—the charge, in one word, that his poetry is perfectly innocent and refined, such as any English gentleman might write if he had the brains; and I am repeating it for one single purpose, that of showing its shallowness and its absurdity. In poetry as 286 in real life it is the easiest thing in the world to be original and outrageous. Any one can create a sensation in life by simply dressing in a sack and walking down the public streets, or in literature by choosing a horrid subject and treating it in a horrid manner. Attention is at once drawn to a person who gibbers like an ape, or to a poet who clothes his ideas in the most fantastic and unnatural form human ingenuity can devise. But the peculiarity of the English gentleman, of the truest and best type of the class, is that he is above all meretricious peculiarity. Quiet, unassuming, reticent, full of culture, armed at all points with the weapons of manhood, graceful, strong, winning his way by courteous self-abnegation, gaining his right when necessary by inexorable will, the English gentleman moves among his fellows and takes his place in the world by simple natural law. Sir Walter Raleigh was an English gentleman. The Earl of Surrey was another. Sir Thomas More, John Milton, George Herbert, Oliver Cromwell, were English gentlemen: all men with refined and quiet manners covering a more or less tremendous stock of reserve strength. What these men were, and what the true English gentleman ever has been, is Tennyson as a poet. He is above all devices and tricks, just as he is above all indecencies. He despises nothing that is noble in culture, not even that red rag of young John Bull’s—the domestic idea. He loves beauty, both of form and colour. He has the national instinct highly developed; witness his war songs and calls to arms. His curiously refined manner looks like affectation to some, who think that a swagger would be more natural. His is a gloved hand; but put your hand in it, and you are imprisoned as in a vice. His is a refined face, not twitching in a chronic fury of trouble and denunciation; but watch it when the time comes, and you will see what power it hides. He has the rarest of all courage—the courage to be reverent. For all these qualities, and for the mighty quality of genius superadded, the British nation loves him; and the British nation is right.
From the first hour to the last of his literary life, the Poet Laureate has condescended to no tricks.
I do but sing because I must,
And pipe but as the linnets sing!
he wrote in “In Memoriam;” and to him verse has been all-sufficient to express the utmost culture of the time. Wonderful as his productions have been, they have never failed to leave the impression of reserve strength, of forces severely restrained in spite of the greatest possible temptation to exert them. His calm is the calm of self-command. With the fine English horror of spasmodic and transient ebullitions, he has always avoided hasty speech. Underneath all this, behind a style perhaps the most perfect achieved by 287 any English poet, lies the greatest capacity for passion and the finest sensibility to pain. But to wail, as certain poets have wailed, to swell the lyrical scream which has been going on in Europe for a century, that would be too contemptible. I can readily imagine that the intensest feelings of this great poet’s life, the most heart-rending sorrows of his career, have never found the faintest public voice in his poetry. That he has suffered greatly, that his measure of trial has been full again and again, there are a thousand signs in his writings; but never once has he rushed into print with his grief, and lashed his breast in the feeble craving for public sympathy. It has been objected to “In Memoriam” that it lacks the touch of deep human agony,—is, in fact, far too philosophic to be the natural voice of strong regret. To me, as to many others, this absence of storm is the poem’s noblest artistic charm. It would have been easy indeed for the author of “Locksley Hall” or “Love and Duty” to have written such a monody as would have wrung the heart and startled the soul; but he chose the nobler task,—and far too proud and sensitive to rush into the market-place with his hot grief, he waited until the first sharp agony was over, and the subtle euphrasy of grief had tranquillised the vision for nobler and more delicate perception of all mundane concerns. Grief has had a million tongues, from the cry of David downwards; but never before had any poet found the strength to hush himself in the dark hour, waiting and watching till unbroken utterance was possible, and all the clear divine issues of sorrow were discovered.
I woo your love: I count it crime
To mourn for any overmuch;
I, the divided half of such
A friendship as had master’d Time;
Which masters Time indeed, and is
Eternal, separate from fears;
The all-assuming months and years
Can take no part away from this.
“In Memoriam” is something better than a shower of tears; it is a rainbow on a grave; a thing that, in its divine mission, has lightened a thousand graves, and brought the true philosophic calm to a thousand mourners. In one lyric on the same subject there is a touch of awful reticence, finer than any cry, a silent beat of the strong heart in a grief too deep for tears:—
Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
Wintry desolation and silent anguish speak in every line, but there is no wailing,—only the sad wash of the inevitable grief which is now and has been from the beginning.* It would be absurd to 288 say that the loss of Arthur Hallam has been the greatest sorrow of Mr. Tennyson’s life; no loss of a mere friend, however dear and precious, can match some other losses that are felt by most of us who attain manhood; but for open indications of that acuter suffering which makes a great soul, we shall look in vain, unless we look very deep indeed. One thing is certain, this wonderful poetic strength, this mighty marble of literature, has not been deposited without great volcanic troubles. Tennyson, like Goethe, has had his Sturm-und-Drang period; but about that, very wisely, he has been silent. Meanwhile, it is ludicrously amusing to see certain critics confounding the sublime self-command of a great poet with the cold-blooded indifference of a small lyrist. To some people, howling is agony, and roaring a sigh of power. Here, you see, the British public is right again. Howling and roaring are intolerable to it, either on the part of gentleman or poet, and it will not have this pleasant island turned into a lazaretto.
For, after all, does much good come of apotheosizing sorrow, and representing life as a short night illuminated by dimly glimmering stars, such as memory and religion? Is not the physical world very lovely, and has not the moral world many a sunbeam? English sentiment says so; and English sentiment is right again. So, when the Poet Laureate speaks another portion of his charm, and describes the leafy lanes, the breezy downs, the copsy villages, and the pleasant pastoral life of England, everybody is delighted to listen. Not even Milton, the best of our landscape poets, caught the delicate tints and subtle nuances of English scenery more truly than does our Laureate. In those supremely beautiful productions, “L’Allegro,” and “Il Penseroso,” and in some lines of “Lycidas,” there is the finest Turneresque picturing to be found in our poetry. A subtle phrase, a word, an adjective, is used to summon up the scene. Look close into the line, and the effect seems perhaps vague and smudgy; but draw back the required distance, and how lovely all appears.
Together both, ere the high lawns appeared
Under the opening eyelids † of the morn,
We drove afield, and both together heard
What time the gray fly winds her sultry horn.
Every word breathes the sentiment of landscape. In the same
* Taine’s criticism on “In Memoriam” is extremely flippant, quite missing the real significance of the poem. “It is written,” says the French historian of English literature, “in praise and memory of a friend who died young, is cold, monotonous, and often too prettily arranged. He goes into mourning; but like a correct gentleman, with bran new gloves, wipes away his tears with a cambric handkerchief, and displays throughout the religious service, which ends the ceremony, all the compunction of a respectful and well-trained layman.”
† In Milton’s original MS., “glimmering eyelids.”
289 delicious spirit do we see the “dappled dawn arise,” while “the cock scatters the rear of darkness thin,”
And the ploughman near at hand
Whistles o’er the furrowed land;
And the milkmaid singeth blithe,
And the mower whets his scythe.
All our senses are satisfied—sight, sound, smell,—as the dewy morning grows. Equally cunning and sweet is the wonderful night-picture, conjured up with such tones as these:—
Oft, on a plot of rising ground,
I hear the far-off Curfew sound,
Over some wide-water’d shore,
Swinging slow with sullen roar.
Akin to tones like these, with their exquisite sensibility to natural effects, are a thousand passages in the writings of Tennyson. From the time when, in his first little volume, he sang how
cold winds woke the gray-eyed morn
About the lonely moated grange,
the thick-moted sunbeam lay
Athwart the chambers,
till the time when, late in life, he described
November dawns, and dewy-glooming downs,
The gentle shower, the smell of dying leaves,
And the low moan of leaden-colour’d seas,
from first to last Mr. Tennyson has excelled in a sort of word-painting which brings to simple perfection the Miltonic manner. Who does not recognise the Tennysonian touch in little glimpses such as this of autumn?
Autumn, with a noise of rooks,
That gather in the waning woods; *
or this of the deepening twilight:
Couch’d at ease,
The white kine glimmer’d, and the trees
Laid their dark arms about the field;
* A fine specimen of this sort of imagery is the vignette of Spring by Alex. Smith:—
pensive Spring, a primrose in her hand,
A solitary lark above her head!
But finest of all, perhaps, is Milton’s description of how
the gray-hooded Even,
Like a sad votaress in palmer’s weed,
Rose from the hindmost wheels of Phoebus’ wain.
Comus, v. 188—190.
290 or this of an English brook:
Uncared for, gird the windy grove,
And flood the haunts of hern and crake;
Or into silver arrows break
The sailing moon in creek and cove;
or this of the moon shining:
O’er the friths that branch and spread
Their sleeping silver thro’ the hills.
In such work there is a cunning which Milton invariably seizes, and Wordsworth generally misses. And Tennyson is akin to the first great Puritan in more than this. He has the same fine self-control, the same austere purity, the same faith in the power of artistic elements to command success for their own sake, as well as for the sake of the thoughts they embody. The Poet Laureate is, in fact, just as Wordsworth was, a lineal poetic descendant of the poet of the Commonwealth. Although there is in his style at times something of the sumptuous feudal wealth of Shakspeare, and although there is in his thought a constant sympathy with exact science and philosophic materialism, there is nowhere, either in thought or style, a trace of the Shakspearian paganism. Indeed, I can quite conceive that John Milton, had he lived in the nineteenth century, would have written his epic in the Arthurian form of moral allegory, rather than in the familiar form of traditional theology. Although Tennyson is far too good a poet ever to be avowedly didactic, his highly tempered and powerful Miltonic mind never for a moment ceases to feel the weight of the moral law. For this and for other reasons, a young writer of the present day, in his recently published Essays,* talks (I quote from memory) of Tennyson’s “narrowness of ethical range;” but as the same writer is in the same breath echoing the modern delusion that Byron was a great disintegrating force, sent to shake the piggish domesticity of England under the Georges, I do not think he has quite weighed the responsibility attached to such a criticism of Tennyson. No great purifying force comes in the guise of a sham; and Byron was the greatest sham English literature has seen. His attacks on society and on individuals were always insincere; his productions were not merely immoral in the vulgar sense, but theatrical and false in the literary sense; and as for his “ethical range,” it was that of an actor in a penny show. True, he was a great poet, good for rapid reading, fine, dashing, stormy, altogether delightful, but in the matter of “ethical range,” and altogether in all the loftier and severer issues of poetry, immeasurably Tennyson’s inferior.
Some portions of Tennyson’s charm for modern readers have been
* Mr. John Morley.
291 glanced at. It has been seen that his verse is the literary correlative of the polished courtesy and vast reserve strength of an English gentleman; that he is too cultured for wild lyrical outbursts of mere personal emotion and passion; that he has an unequalled sense of the power of a phrase (as Turner had an unequalled sense of the power of the stroke of a brush,) to conjure up landscape; that this last power has been used for the purpose of making delicious word-pictures of national, or English, scenery; and that, finally, he belongs to the noblest class of men England has yet succeeded in producing—the English Puritans—the men who, while sacrificing life’s blood for freedom of conscience, while keeping ever abreast of thought and progress in every generation, from that of Milton and Marvell, to this of Tennyson and Mill, have never lost sight of the higher law which shapes all human ends, have never consented to regard life as merely a frivolous business, have never lacked the impulse to revere, or the will to resist and doubt. Under the Commonwealth, Tennyson would doubtless have been a religious zealot, a fiery political partisan, and the poet of old theology. Under Queen Victoria, he is a keen man of science, a reserved and retiring private gentleman, and the poet of the higher Pantheism. But in either case, he would rank as an English Puritan, intolerant of vice, full of the sense of beauty, and bound by the innate sense of reverence and responsibility to worship in some way some higher intelligence than himself, whether the might of the God of Judah, or the mysterious “Immanence” of the Spinozan conception of God.
Thus much having been said, is all said? Though quite enough has been written to explain why this poet should be the peculiar pride and delight of his generation, much more of his peculiar charm remains to be told.
In the last chapter of his radically unsound and superficial work on English literature, M. Taine strains all his specious descriptive faculty to show that Tennyson is simply a dilettante artist, whose true mission it is to reproduce in exquisite vignettes the finer and more beautiful forms of fairy mythology and elegant domestic life. Taine misses altogether, I think, the true genealogy of this poet, and traces his consanguinity with neither Wordsworth nor Milton. Tennyson is, as I have said, a Puritan of proud and meditative nature, but he superadds the fine Miltonic sense of female beauty to the deep Wordsworthian perception of human worth. Amidst the landscape first outlined by Milton he has placed a bevy of female figures in the fresh and stainless manner of the Miltonic Eve:—
She, like a wood-nymph light,
Oread or Dryäd, or of Delia’s train,
Betook her to the groves; but Delia’s self
In gait surpassed, and goddess-like deport,
Though not as she with bow and quiver arm’d,
But with such gardening tools as art yet rude, 292
Guiltless of fire, had form’d, or angels brought.
To Pales, or Pomona, thus adorned,
Likest she seemed: Pomona when she fled
Vertumnus, or to Ceres in her prime,
Yet virgin of Proserpina from Jove.
In a series of exquisite cabinet-pictures, all fresh and original, yet all possessing something of the “virgin majesty of Eve,” he has painted Lilian, Isabel, Madeline, the Lady of Shalott, Eleanore, the Miller’s Daughter, Lady Clara, “sweet pale” Margaret, the Gardener’s Daughter, Dora, Godiva, St. Agnes, Maud, Enid, Elaine, and many other beautiful women of an unmistakably English type. Even Guinevere, in her stately beauty and supreme repentance, is Eve after the Fall, when she beheld the beautiful world first yielding to the bloody consequences of her sin:
Nigh in her sight
The bird of Jove, stoop’d from his aery tour,
Two birds of gayest plume before him drove;
Down from a hill the beast that reigns in woods,
First hunter then, pursued a gentle brace,
Goodliest of all the forest, hart and hind.
In the pages of this third great Puritan poet, we have scarcely a glimpse of any utterly degraded woman. The type is perfect; chastity and beauty reign in each lineament.
Those graceful acts,
Those thousand decencies, that daily flow
From all her words and actions, mixed with love
And sweet compliance.
But what infinite variety! what ever-changing loveliness of form and spirit! The glorious creature illumes the world, and creates a new Paradise. Such as we find her here, she is in life, in a thousand delightful forms of English maid and mother, moving against a green and gentle landscape, sprinkled with stately halls and pleasant homesteads, and kept ever fresh by the breath of the encircling sea.
Tennyson’s originality is most conspicuous in this, that he has taken this type of the Miltonic woman, the first condition of whose being is to be beautiful, the second to be pure and chaste; and he has developed out of it a higher and grander reality by colouring it with all the passion Milton lacked, and all the daintiness Wordsworth despised. In Tennyson’s women, whatever their situation and degree, there is a sort of immortal maidenhood, a bloom of imperishable virginity, coupled with a rich sensuousness which never verges on sensuality, but is mellow as the flavour of a ripe peach. Milton did not miss the sensuousness (witness the wonderful rush of colour through the ninth book of his “Paradise Lost”), but he almost resented it in himself, 293 and trembled at his eternal dangers. Wordsworth, on the other hand, never lost sight of the Puritan truth that maternity was the woman’s consecration; every maid he saw was a prospective mother, burthened with a certain heavy halo of responsibility. Tennyson is fully as chaste as either of his great predecessors; but his women are infinitely more varied and virgin-like. Taken alone, as a set of portraits by a great artist, they would entitle him to a place by the side of Sir Joshua Reynolds, as a master of colour without one prurient tint or touch.
But just as he had followed Milton in one way, Tennyson has followed Wordsworth in another. Not content with filling his English landscapes with beautiful maidenly figures, he has painted for us, still within the circle of beauty to which he has sternly relegated himself, a number of humble figures, with such tales to tell as gently move the heart. His treatment of these figures is not, like that of Wordsworth, a treatment of moral philosophy, nor is it, like that of Dickens, a treatment of beneficence. He has no tenderness in this direction, and little humour. He selects no human figure for its own sake; he is incapable, perhaps, of the almost animal sympathy shown in Wordsworth’s “Two Thieves” and “Street Musicians,” or of the grim-knitted agony of Coleridge’s “Two Graves” fragment; but he has succeeded to a wonderful extent in representing, by the figures of which I speak, the relation of simple circumstances to the gigantic issues of Death and Immortality. With what singular felicity, in the idyl of “The Brook” does he reveal to us the ebb and flow of human lives, and the fixedness of natural conditions. A landscape is painted for us, and in it a brook singing; and across that landscape, one by one, to the brook’s monotonous chant, the generations rise, speak a little word, and go. We see them come, we feel them fade. I know no art greater than that shown in the close of this poem; and I do not think the poem, as a whole, can be equalled, in our language, for simplicity of form and sublimity of issue. Similar in its blending of transient and eternal things is the extraordinary little monologue entitled “The Grandmother,” where the wavering memories of an aged woman, the bright illuminating flashes on the dark background of decay, the confounding of one generation with another, the drowsy worn-out wish for rest, broken again and again by the sharp feminine echoes of a busy over-crowded life, are conveyed in a wonderful manner to the reader’s mind, all with the clearest sense of the actually picturesque. Less fine in degree, but welcome for their touches of grim humour, are the “Northern Farmer” poems. These are studies in George Eliot’s manner, with the “gleam” that the prose-writer’s manner always wants. “Enoch Arden,” too, has considerable merits; but it is too long for the kind of power of which Tennyson is a master, and it does not, as a whole, leave a lofty impression. But all these studies, in what may be called the Wordsworthian manner, 294 are certain of immortality. Taken one with another, they are amazing products as coming from the same hand which drew the Tennysonian “beauties,” and wrote “In Memoriam.” They are highly individual, in so far as they never lose sight of the point of beauty, to which Wordsworth, as a great philosophical poet, is frequently indifferent; but they do not escape from classification under the Wordsworthian group of “English idyl,” because their subjects seem invariably chosen from conventional country districts, where everything is peculiarly neat and clean, and where there is, carried into all concerns of life, a certain primness and preciseness of the moral sense.*
In that series of passionate cadences, the poem of “Maud,” Mr. Tennyson shook off, for a moment as it were, the burthen of his Puritan descent, and indulged in more invective than is usually approved of here in England. M. Taine calls the vein a “Byronic” one, and thus accounts for its unpopularity; but this is a double blunder, for in the first place “Maud” is not in the least Byronic, and in the second place, if it had been Byronic, it would certainly have been popular. The studied attitudinising, the strong declaiming, and altogether what I may entitle the “grand manner” is altogether wanting in this poem; equally wanting is the ingenious diablerie and devil-may-care defiance; and the whole tone rather resembles the more hectic poetry of Shelley than anything else in our language. “Maud” is full of beauties; it positively blossoms with exquisite expressions; and it is, at times, highly lyrical without being over-shrill. Nothing, perhaps, proves the dullness of the British public in some directions more than the comparatively unsuccessful fate of this poem. I am far from holding, with some critics, that it is the poet’s masterpiece; it is far too disjointed for that; and it lacks, moreover, the nobility of theme essential to a really great work,—the hero being far too hysterical a personage to satisfy common sense, and the story being merely, in spite of its various ramifications of political and social meaning, a dull enough love-tale of that now conventional type which the same writer created in “Locksley Hall.” Still it is invaluable as revealing to us for a moment the sources of reserve strength in Tennyson, and as containing signs of passion and self-revelation altogether unusual. In a hundred passages, we have glimpses that startle and amaze us. We perceive what stern self-suppression has been exerted to keep the Laureate what he is. We see what a disturbing force he might have been, if he had not chosen rather to be the consecrating musician of his generation.
* Mr. Morley somewhere styles this sort of poetry “The Clerical Idyl;” but the title, although a clever one, is liable to mislead. In this and other attempts to compose literary “labels,” Mr. Morley follows the modern French school of criticism, which sacrifices everything to the instinct of symmetrical classification, and when a subject does not fall under the pre-arranged heads, is utterly at a loss what to do with it.
295 But a nobler and a finer theme was awaiting treatment. From the beginning, Tennyson had studied with a loving eye the old group of legends clustered round the name of King Arthur, and for many a year he had been working in secret on the book which turns these legends into a colossal allegory. It is interesting to remember that Milton always contemplated a poem on the same theme. In the book which first established his reputation, Mr. Tennyson published that noble torso, “The Morte d’Arthur,” a poem in which the Miltonic verse is disencumbered of all its unwieldy and superfluous trappings, and brought to the very perfection of lightness and ease, combined with weight and strength. Since then he has published in succession the other portions of his epic. Taken individually, no portion equals that first published; but the epic, as a finished whole, has a finer effect on the imagination than have any of its detached fragments.
It is one of the favourite dicta of the typical critic of the French Empire, that the greatest art is above all directly moral purposes, and that all work which is intended to serve a didactic end, or does unconsciously obtrude that end, is necessarily inferior. This dictum, essentially true in itself, involves issues transcending the intelligence of the man who utters it most frequently; for we find M. Taine, like dozens of smaller men, losing sight of the fact that there are two sorts of didactic writing,—the sort leaning to the side of virtue, and the sort leaning to the side of vice. It is very low art to obtrude virtue; it is equally low art to obtrude vice; but the first low art has the merit of at least being exerted for good. When I find M. Taine coupling together in the same breath Shakspeare and Goethe as artists of the highest kind, I see where his argument is going to lead him; and I do really believe that he would like to add to those surnames the name of De Musset. I hold, however, that Georges Sand,* Gautier, Baudelaire, and all the latest French school of poets and novelists [not to speak of their feeble imitators of the so-called Fleshly School in this country], are didactic writers of an unmistakable description, just as didactic, in their own way, as Richardson and Cowper in England, or Augier himself in France, the only difference being that they are didactic in the service of Passion and Vice. Over the heads of both groups alike a great artist is bound to soar; and it is clear on the very face of it that Goethe did not, if we judge him by the total amount and quality of his artistic influence. Homer, Shakspeare, Molière, Chaucer, may justly be ranked in the higher category, as artists totally unbiassed and altogether above any undue influence either from the morality or from the revolt of their country and their generation.
Now, it may be asserted that the Arthurian epic, which Mr.
* It must be understood here that I do not allude to Georges Sand’s earlier works, but to those words composed during the second, and demoralised, stage of her intellectual development.
296 Tennyson justly puts forth as his greatest poetical work, is, by its very nature, relegated to the ranks of those books which are written in the service of Virtue. It is, moreover, an Allegory; and that fact would reduce it to very low rank indeed, if it were an Allegory only; but Mr. Tennyson may well retort that it can be read without any allegorical reading between the lines whatever, as a marvellous “chanson de geste,” or delightful traditional tale; that it contains hardly a line or expression avowedly “moral,” or out of keeping with mediæval ethics; and that it is, in the highest sense, a record of the simplest human tragedy with elements as universal and as deep as life itself. Unlike the “Faëry Queen” in one direction, and utterly unlike the “Divine Comedy” in another, the epic of Arthur is simple in structure as a crystal, and bright in colour as a sun-illuminated prism. There is no guising of Courtesy, Purity, Passion, Lust, and other vague abstractions, under divers quaint and amusing dresses; no mummery of the moral Sentiments in the guise of Knights or Naiads, or of the Senses and Vices in the guise of Dwarfs and Satyrs; no riddling, no composing; no representation of reality under the dainty device of a Masque. How beautiful even such a device may be made we all know, who have read of
Heavenly Una and her milk-white lamb!
Nor is there, in the Arthurian epic, any dogmatic ethics or religion, any arbitrary connection with Judaism or technical Christianity; it is not a tale of antique theology or mediæval mystery; it contains no representation of Divine Law under the symbols of a Church. How mighty such symbols may become, as poetic agents, we all know who have read the wonderful story
Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world and all our woe,
or that other dreadful legend beginning—
Nell’ mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
Mi ritornai per una selva oscura!
Both Dante and Milton were Puritan poets; but Tennyson is a Puritan with the advantages of modern culture. His great work has escaped the old limitations. It is a tale of human life, as real as “Lear;” it is supremely affecting as a simple narrative, as an exquisite setting of the old legend; and yet, read between the lines, it exhales a fragrance unmistakably didactic. No one closes it without being conscious of the Puritan touch. The heart is not wrung, but the moral sense is perceptibly heightened.
I confess that this fine poem puzzles me. I cannot conscientiously 297 say that it is an allegory, and yet it has an allegorical complexion. I cannot describe it as didactic, and yet it is full of the strongest teaching. I feel its tenderness and sublimity, and yet I know it is tender and sublime strictly within the circle of English middle-class morality. The question is, must a great poem, in which the artistic sense is never for one moment sacrificed, in which there is the truest and most untrammelled human passion and emotion, and which deals with some of the most disturbing elements of life, be classed as second-rate because the perfume it gives forth is unmistakably “moral?” I think not; but I am not quite sure. Of one point I am quite certain; and it is this—that M. Taine, and many critics in England, who would condemn this moral exhalation, would hesitate much less in putting the poem in the front rank if the poem were just the same and gave forth a perfume justly described as immoral. There is so much confounding of Didactics and Virtue; as if the affected old thing Didactics were not quite as often to be found in the company of Vice.
Be that as it may, Tennyson need not tremble. Relegated even to the awful company of “good” books, the epic of Arthur will at least be side by side with the “Divine Comedy,” “The Faëry Queen,” the “Paradise Lost,” and a few other works which human ingenuity, however perfectly tempered by that Art we hear so much about, will find it difficult to parallel. I do not say that it is certain of equal rank with any of these poems. It is yet too near to our eyes to be thoroughly understood. It requires the mellowing of years; and a century hence, it may either have pined away into a sour thin liquor, or have gained the pure and perfect flavour of old wine. On one point, however, I am quite clear: that in mere matter of style the Idyls stands higher than any contemporary or recent poetry, higher even than the same writer’s earlier efforts, clear and limpid as they were. I cannot conceive what the Quarterly Reviewer was thinking of, when, in the same breath, he condemned as equally affected and archaic the language of Mr. Tennyson and that of the members of the Fleshly sub-Tennysonian School.* Every stage in the Laureate’s growth has been an advance in simplicity of speech, and his later Idyls, in spite of some clumsy archaisms, such as “enow” for “enough,” are almost perfect in their limpid Saxon. While his recent imitators are eagerly gathering up and wearing the meretricious finery he threw
* “Nor can we better characterise their manner than by employing the words in which Wordsworth condemns the pedantic imitators of the classics in the eighteenth century. ‘There are poets who think they are conferring honour on themselves and their art, in proportion as they separate themselves from the sympathies of men, and indulge in arbitrary and capricious habits of expression, in order to furnish food for fickle tastes and fickle appetites of their own creation.’” —The Quarterly Review, January, 1872. See also my own pamphlet on “The Fleshly School of Poetry.”
298 away long ago, while writers like Mr. Dante Rossetti are Latinising our mother-tongue in drawl after drawl of laboured affectation,* the Poet Laureate has attained to the dignity of such verse as the following:—
THE PARTING OF ARTHUR AND GUINEVERE.
He paused, and in the pause she crept an inch
Nearer, and laid her hands about his feet.
Far off a solitary trumpet blew.
Then waiting by the doors the warhorse neigh’d
As at a friend’s voice, and he spake again.
“Yet think not that I come to urge thy crimes,
I did not come to curse thee, Guinevere,
I, whose vast pity almost makes me die
To see thee, laying there thy golden head,
My pride in happier summers, at my feet.
The wrath which forced my thoughts on that fierce law,
The doom of treason and the flaming death,
(When first I learnt thee hidden here) is past.
The pang—which while I weigh’d thy heart with one
Too wholly true to dream untruth in thee,
Made my tears burn—is also past, in part.
And all is past, the sin is sinn’d, and I,
Lo! I forgive thee, as Eternal God
Forgives: do thou for thine own soul the rest.
But how to take last leave of all I loved?
O golden hair, with which I used to play
Not knowing! O imperial-moulded form,
And beauty such as never woman wore,
Until it came a kingdom’s curse with thee—
I cannot touch thy lips, they are not mine,
But Lancelot’s: nay, they never were the King’s.
I cannot take thy hand; that too is flesh,
And in the flesh thou hast sinn’d; and mine own flesh,
Here looking down on thine polluted, cries
‘I loathe thee:’ yet not less, O Guinevere,
For I was ever virgin save for thee,
My love thro’ flesh hath wrought into my life
So far, that my doom is, I love thee still.
Let no man dream but that I love thee still.
Perchance, and so thou purify thy soul,
And so thou lean on our fair father Christ,
Hereafter in that world where all are pure
* Thus, with Mr. Rossetti, Death is “a seizure of malign vicissitude;” a kiss “a consonant interlude” of lips; a moan “the sighing wind’s auxiliary;” the sky “soft-complexioned,” and the sea-shell’s sound “a low importunate strain;” a sound of hours in chorus “a choral consonancy;” changes are “culminant,” and hours “eventual;” the mouth “solicitous,” and love all “emulous ardours.” Here is Euphues come again with a vengeance, in the shape of an amatory foreigner ill-acquainted with English, and seemingly modelling his style on the “conversation” of Dr. Samuel Johnson. (See Rossetti’s Poems, published by Ellis & Green, London, 1870.)
We two may meet before high God, and thou 299
Wilt spring to me, and claim me thine, and know
I am thine husband—not a smaller soul,
Nor Lancelot, nor another. Leave me that,
I charge thee, my last hope. Now must I hence.
Thro’ the thick night I hear the trumpet blow:
They summon me their King to lead mine hosts
Far down to that great battle in the west,
Where I must strike against my sister’s son,
Leagued with the lords of the White Horse and knights
Once mine, and strike him dead, and meet myself
Death, or I know not what mysterious doom.
And thou remaining here wilt learn the event;
But hither shall I never come again,
Never lie by thy side, see thee no more,
And while she grovell’d at his feet,
She felt the King’s breath wander o’er her neck,
And, in the darkness o’er her fallen head,
Perceived the waving of his hands that blest.
Note here, that there is not one expression a vulgar reader would style “poetical,” not one bit of prettiness or ornament; that the sentences are as simply strung together as ordinary speech; and that nearly every word, with the exception of the one epithet “imperial-moulded” (a Latinism which strikes me as admirable in its sudden burst of contrast), is the purest Saxon. In other passages, Mr. Tennyson has resuscitated old Saxon words of inestimable beauty and force, as well as a few words which were better left alone. Altogether, his great poem is of thoroughly pure form and crystalline transparence. If it were weeded of some scattered archaic expressions and Latinisms, and altogether toned up to the level strength of its finest passages, it would stand as a model of poetic English.
Its charm for the public is the clearness of its narrative and the perfume of its moral. It has completed the fascination first felt in the English Idyls, strengthened in “In Memoriam,” and perceptibly weakened on the publication of “Maud.” The English gentleman again finds voice; the style is full of reticence and dignity, the circumstances pregnant with beauty, the purity and nobility indisputable. The poem is entirely satisfactory, from all points of view, to the being who pronounces public judgments and regulates public successes.
The charm is complete, the poet has triumphed to the extent of human possibility. He is accepted, still living, as the greatest modern English poet—as occupying the place in relation to England which in Germany is assigned to Heine and in France is generally conceded to Alfred de Musset. Before quitting the subject, let us look on three pictures, each more or less illuminating the other.
In a quiet set of chambers in the Avenue Matignon, No. 3, Paris, 300 there lingered for eight long years a quaint figure, paralysed to his chair and watching, with an eye where love and jealousy blended, the figure of his wife sewing at his side, while an old negress moved about in household duties. This man spent most of his time in composition, using alternately the French and the German tongues. He had few friends and not many visitors. His life was lonely, his heart was sad, and he uttered shrill laughter. Though tender and affectionate beyond measure (witness his treatment of his mother, “the old woman at the Damenthor”) he loved to gibe at all subjects, from the majesty of God to the littleness of man. His name was known through all the length of Germany as the greatest poet after Goethe. His wild, sweet poems were household words. He had sung the wonderful song of the “Lorelei,” and the delightful ballad of the daughters of King Duncan:
Mein Knecht! steh’ auf und sattle schnell,
Und wirf dich auf dein Ross,
Und jage rasch, durch Wald und Feld,
Nach König Duncan’s Schloss!
He was the author of the most dreadfully realistic poem of modern times, the fragment entitled “Ratcliffe,"” where we have the terrible meeting of two who “loved once”:
“Man sagte mir, Sie haben sich vermählt?”
Ach ja! sprach sie gleichgültig laut und lachend,
“Hab’ einen Stoch von Holz, der überzogen
Mit Leder ist, Gemal sich nennt; doch Holz
Ist Holz!”—Und klanglos widrig lachse sie, &c.*
He had (not to speak of his other achievements) been the German lyrical poet of his generation. On the 17th February, 1856, he died, and the only persons of note who attended his funeral were Mignet, Gautier, and Alexander Dumas. This man was Heinrich Heine, author of the “Buch der Lieder” and the “Romancero.”
At the same period there was moving in the heart of Paris another poet, who was to France what Heine was to Germany, and perhaps something more. In verses of the most delicate fragrance he had chronicled the lives and aspirations, the ennui and despair, of the inhabitants of the most cultured and debased city under the sun. He had exhausted life too early, like most Frenchmen. His fellow-
* “They tell me, thou art married?”
“Ah, yes!” she said, indifferently, and laughing,
“A wooden stick I have, with leather cover’d,
And called a Husband! Still, wood is but wood!”
And here she broke to hollow, empty laughter, &c.
I know few poems more powerfully affecting the imagination, by more terribly simple means, than this piece of bitter psychology.
301 beings had listened with him, in the theatre, to Malibran, and sighingly exclaimed in his words that, in this world,
Rien n’est bon que d’aimer, n’est vrai que de souffrir!
They had listened delightedly to the talk of his two seedy dilettantes, who exchange notes together inside the cabaret, and finally disappear in a fashion worthy of Montague Tigg in his adversity:
Les liqueurs me font mal. Je n’aime que la bière.
Qu’as-tu sur toi?
Entrons au cabaret.
Après vous, s’il vous plait! *
They had beaten time to his delicious song of Mimi Pinson:
Mimi Pinson est une blonde
Une blonde que l’on connaît.
Elle n’a qu’une robe au monde,
Et qu’un bonnet!
They had seen him, as his own Rolla, enter the Rue des Moulins, where his little mistress will greet him with a kiss. Poor little thing! her body is bought and sold; and yet, see! she is lying in sweet and innocent sleep:
Est-ce sur de la neige, ou sur une statue,
Que cette lampe d’or, dans l’ombre suspendue,
Fait onduler l’azur de ce rideau tremblant?
Non, la neige est plus pâle, et le marbre est moins blanc,
C’est un enfant qui dort.—Sur ses lèvres ouvertes
Voltige par instants un faible et doux soupir,
Un soupir plus léger que ceux des algues vertes
Quand, le soir, sur les mers voltige le zéphyr,
Et que, sentant fléchir ses ailes embaumées
Sous les baisers ardents de ses fleurs bien-aimées,
Il boit sur ses bras nus les perles des roseaux.
* Poesies Nouvelles, p. 116.
C’est un enfant qui dort sous ces épais rideaux, 302
Un enfant de quinze ans,—presque une jeune femme.
Rien n’est encor formé dans cet être charmant.
Le petit chérubin qui veille sui son âme
Doute s’il est son frère ou s’il est son amant.
Ses longs cheveux épars la couvrent tout entière.
La croix de son collier repose dans sa main,
Comme pour témoigner qu’elle a fait sa prière,
Et qu’elle va la faire en s’éveillant demain.
Elle dort, regardez:—quel front noble et candide!
Partout, comme un lait pur sur une onde limpide,
Le ciel sur la beauté répandit la pudeur.
Elle dort toute nue et la main sur son cœur.
N’est-ce pas que la nuit la rende encor plus belle?
Que ces molles clartés palpitent autour d’elle,
Comme si, malgré lui, le sombre Esprit du soir
Sentait sur ce beau corps frémir son manteau noir?
This poet was Alfred de M asset, and those who loved his strange voice, issuing from the lupanar, soon found it fade away. He died in the height of life and power. Whenever I think of him, I think of his own story imitated from Boccaccio.* Like Pascal in that story, he was revelling in all the delights of sensual love when, from the flowery couch where he sat with his mistress, he unaware plucked a flower and held it between his lips as he talked; and alas! the poisonous belladonna crept into his veins, and he fell a corpse, with the words of love on his poor trembling lips.
Turn to the third picture. The scene is England, and the poet, a man of noble private life and simple manners, stands on the cliffs of the Isle of Wight, close to the threshold of a happy English home. He is well-to-do, honoured, beloved. He has risen by sheer force of genius, by sheer delightfulness of lyrical charm, to be the first singer of his nation. He, too, like Heine and De Musset, has painted women; but in his pages, instead of the slender Seraphina, the colossal Diana, the fickle Hortense, and the matronly Yolane (see Heine’s group of beauties), and instead of the courtezan Marian, the grisette Mimi Pinson, the Andalusian marquesa, and the Italian Simone (as painted by De Musset), we find such stainless creatures as Elaine, Isabel, and the Miller’s Daughter. He, too, has sung of love, no less passionately, but far more purely. He resembles the two others in one point only—the wonderful unaffectedness of his language and the beauty of his versification. It is indeed noticeable that three lyric poets so great should be equally noteworthy for simplicity of poetic form. The literary motto of De Musset may be found in “Rolla:”
L’Esperance humaine est lasse d’être mêre,
Et, le sein tout meurtri d’avoir tant allaité,
Elle fait son repos de son stérilité.
303 That of Heine appears in the fresco-sonnets to Christian S——:
Und wenn das Herz im Leibe ist zerrissen,
Zerrissen, und zerschnitten, und zerstochen,
Dann bleibt uns doch das schöne gelle Lachen! *
But the motto of Tennyson is highest and noblest of all—no mere despair, no mere mockery; and it may be taken in these words from “In Memoriam:”
Thou seemest human and divine,
The highest, holiest manhood, Thou:
Our wills are ours, we know not how;
Our wills are ours, to make them Thine.
We may well rejoice that the highest flower of intellectual life in this country, unlike the products in those other countries, owes its charm to feelings at once so reverent and so pure.
One word in conclusion. As Alfred de Musset and Heinrich Heine showed their originality chiefly by bringing to perfection the thoughts of many generations of lyrical poets, so Alfred Tennyson is chiefly noticeable as the last and most perfect product of the ideal poets of England. He is the lyric embodiment of our highest and purest culture. No English singer can work in the same direction, certainly not by inverting the Tennysonian method, and being as impure as he is pure. If English poetry is to exist, to be perpetuated, it must absorb materials as yet scarcely dreamed of; it must penetrate deeper into not merely national life, but into cosmopolitan being; it must cast over some amount of formal culture and accept whatever help the shapeless spirit of the Age can bring it. The finest lyrical cry has been heard; the clearest cultured utterance has been attained. Of Tennyson it may surely be said, in the words of Carlyle: “Nay, the finished Poet is I remark, sometimes, a symptom that his Epoch itself has reached perfection and is finished; that before long there will be a new Epoch, new Reformers needed.” Let that Epoch advance; but meanwhile let us bow in homage, again and again, before the completed product of the Epoch just past. The poet to come may be and must be different; he certainly cannot be more beautiful and simple; and let us pray, with all our hearts, that he may sing in as noble a spirit as he who (like that other who just preceded him) has “uttered nothing base.”
* And when the very heart is torn asunder,
Torn up, and stabb’d, and hack’d in pieces after,
We still have power to keep a fine shrill Laughter!
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